Posts Tagged 'Wilbur'

Charlotte’s Web Tops List of Best-Ever Kids’ Books

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof put E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web at the top of his list of best-ever children’s books (7/4/09). Though I wholeheartedly agree with his #1 choice, Nick’s one-line summary kind of misses the point: “The story of the spider who saves her friend, the pig, is the kindest representation of an arthropod in literary history.” Yes, the book is named for Charlotte, but it is really Wilbur’s story. In my view Charlotte’s Web is the story of a pig who transcends his destiny (the dinner table) with the help of his friends, most notably a spider.

Charlotte is the book’s heroine in a narrow sense; more aptly, she is a clever saleswoman, who by weaving superlatives into her web she changes people’s perceptions of Wilbur, from ham to celebrity. Successful (and sincere) pitch woman that she is, Charlotte doesn’t risk anything to achieve these heroic deeds. When her job is done she dies quietly of natural causes, leaving numerous offspring to tend to Wilbur’s celebrity (a legion of arthropod PR agents).

Readers young and old identify with Wilbur. He is our naive inner child who can’t see beyond the pleasures of his food trough to the certain fate that awaits him, and us.  Charlotte is the mother figure, whose love, wisdom and competence help her weave a solution for what appears to be a hopeless situation. (And isn’t it appropriate that a mother needs eight legs!) As readers/children we cannot help but grieve when Charlotte/our mother dies, yet we are mostly relieved that our stand-in Wilbur is spared the ax.

Did Wilbur survive another season? We’ll never know for sure, but EBW could bank on young readers being optimists, so we’ll have to suppose Wilbur’s contract was renewed for as many episodes as a pig’s natural lifespan promises.

As to that lifespan, having just read the immensely enjoyable story of a real-life Wilbur (The Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood by Sy Montgomery), I can say Wilbur might have looked forward to a 14-season run, give or take. He also might eventually have tipped the scales at 750 pounds and been unable to right himself when he toppled over sideways on a hillside. The very entertaining book depicts the joys and frustrations of raising a pet that weighs as much as a refrigerator and eats as much in a day as one can hold!

Ode to a Spider

My friend Jeff recently called my attention to a segment that aired on NPR’s “All Things Considered” on August 4, 2008.

Entitled “Charlotte A. Cavatica: Bloodthirsty, Wise and True” and reported by Melissa Block, the segment discusses the character of Charlotte and includes clips of E. B. White reading from Charlotte’s Web. Like his readers, young and old, he always struggled to read the ending without crying (spoiler alert: Charlotte dies). The show also includes speculation by Martha White (EBW’s granddaughter and editor of his collected letters) that Charlotte was modeled on her grandmother, Katharine White. Lending credence to the theory, NPR’s Block notes that EBW penned an arachnid love poem when he and Katharine were newlyweds, some 25 years before the publication of Charlotte’s Web:
Continue reading ‘Ode to a Spider’

Striking the Stage-Set of a Life

In 1957, E. B. and Katharine White left Manhattan to live year-round on their farm in Maine. In Good-bye to Forty-Eighth Street, EBW wryly compares the process of packing to:

“…trying to persuade hundreds of inanimate objects to disperse and leave me alone. It is not a simple matter. I am impressed by the reluctance of one’s worldly possessions to go out into the world again. I kept hoping that some morning, as if by magic, all…would drain away from around my feet, like the outgoing tide, leaving me standing silent on a bare beach.

He later returns to the tidal image, observing with resignation:

It is not possible to keep abreast of the normal tides of acquisition. A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve permits influx but prevents outflow.

Particularly challenging is the disposal of awards and trophies, which he calls “leeches.” His trademark wit is at its sharpest here:

…I sat for a while staring at a plaque that had entered my life largely as a result of some company’s zest for self-promotion. It was bronze on walnut, heavy enough to make an anchor for a rowboat, but I didn’t need a rowboat anchor, and this thing had my name on it. By deft work with a screwdriver, I finally succeeded in prying the nameplate off; I pocketed this, and carried the mutilated remains to the corner, where the wire basket waited. The work exhausted me more than the labor for which the award was presented.

I imagine that the nameplate was later disposed of Sopranos-style in a New Jersey dumpster where no trash-picker would make the connection.
Continue reading ‘Striking the Stage-Set of a Life’


E.B. White with his dog in the late 1940s (photo from NYT, 10/2/85)

E.B. White with his dog in the late 1940s (photo from NYT, 10/2/85)

I first fell in love with E.B. White’s books as a small child reading Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. Later I grew to appreciate his writing for adults in The New Yorker. 

More recently, while boxing up my late mother’s books to donate to her local library, I found a hardcover copy of White’s collected essays, inscribed by me “Christmas 1977,” the year of its publication. I brought the book home, and leafing through it, I discovered that Mom had saved a newspaper clipping of his obituary between its pages. (White died Oct. 1, 1985, at age 86.) Re-reading the essays has reminded me how deeply I admire White, not only for the elegance of his prose and his dry wit, but for the timeless wisdom of his observations about daily life, animals and politics.

“Salutations!” is how Charlotte first greeted Wilbur, and so I dedicate this blog to E. B. White, whose way with words continues to impress and inspire me.

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